Æthelred as depicted in the early-fourteenth-century
Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England
Æþelræd ruled the English from 978 to 1016. During his reign England was repeatedly attacked by Danish armies seeking to destroy the sovereignty of the Anglo-Saxons and to raid England.
Æþelræd was the younger son of Edgar. He became king at the age of seven following the murder of his half-brother Edward II in 978 at Corfe Castle, Dorset, possibly by Æþelræd’s retainers. Suspicion that Æþelræd had ordered the murder of Edward led to the nobles of the kingdom formed rival parties around Edward and Æþelræd.
The name ‘Æþelræd means ‘noble council’, but his poor judgement and the actions that resulted from this led to him being known as ‘Æþelræd Unræd’ – literally ‘noble council, no council’.
The distrust and disloyalty that undermined Æþelræd’s authority meant that there was no unified defence when the Danish invasions resumed in 980. His efforts to buy peace through the payment of Danegeld only increased the ferocity of the raids.
Following bad advice from his witan, Æþelræd gave the order for the slaughter of ‘all the Danish men who were among the English race’ on St Brice’s Day because they meant to kill him and his advisers and take over the kingdom.
This took place on St Brides’ day – November 13 1002, and is known as the St Brides’ Day Massacre. How many were killed is uncertain, but in Oxford threatened Danish families broke into St Frideswide’s church for sanctuary and resisted the local people’s efforts to evict them. The local people then burned the church down, killing the people sheltering inside.
This act is mentioned in a charter Æþelræd issued to St Frideswide’s in 1004, in which he recalled his order for ‘a just extermination’ of all the Danes in England, who had ‘sprouted like a cockle amongst the wheat’. His decree had been issued, he claimed, on the advice of all his leading men and magnates.
It was claimed that one of those killed in Oxford was Gunnhild, the sister of Swein Forkbeard king of Denmark. In 1009 a large army was sent by Swein to attack England. Although the English bought the invaders off in 1012, the following year Swein led another invasion. Much of the demoralized English nation submitted to his rule. Ethelred resisted from London for some months, then finally fled to Normandy. After Swein died suddenly in February 1014, Ethelred was reinstated as king, but his rule was challenged by Cnut, Swein’s younger son.
Cnut’s first campaign was unsuccessful, and he retreated to Denmark, only to return to England with a new army in 1015. Æþelræd and his son Edmund Iron-sides fought against the invaders early in 1016 at London. But on April 23, 1016, Æþelræd died. Edmund succeeded him and struggled on for a few months. However, by the end of the year Edmund too was dead, and Cnut became the ruler of England.